Last summer, I got sucked into playing the 30-year-old video game EarthBound. First released in Japan as Mother 2 in 1994, the game failed to catch on in the United States but developed a cult following, finding renewed life (at least for casual gamers like me) when it was re-released last year on the Nintendo Switch. You play as a group of young’ns traversing a world that acts as a funhouse mirror of American culture: eating hamburgers and pizza to heal, fighting with baseball bats and yo-yos. I thought a lot about EarthBound while listening to Kate NV’s new album WOW, especially the way that EarthBound sounds.
EarthBound has an an incredible soundtrack, composed primarily by Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka. Suzuki and Tanaka were inspired by Western music — from progressive rock to soupy jazz to the Beach Boys and the Beatles. In the same fashion as Japanese city pop, they morph these influences into odd, distorted shapes. Echoing the game’s juvenile sense of humor, the pair builds immersive tracks from whistles and screeches, plops and burps — the songs are smooth and cloyingly nostalgic, just as often as they engage in absurdist gross-out fun. EarthBound has a deep appreciation for music — there’s even a whole area where you battle against vinyl records and giant guitars. The game is fascinated by what emotions you can manage to impart with sound, in much the same way that Kate NV’s music is.
The Russian electronic artist born Ekaterina Shilonosova has always been inspired by video games; though she hasn’t cited EarthBound as a specific inspiration for WOW, they seem like kindred spirits. Both are goofy but sincere, a colorful playpen with a lot of heart. On WOW, she employs a similar charm, crafting tracks from unexpected bits. Kate NV sometimes uses Found Sound Nation’s Broken Orchestra sample pack, a collection of sounds compiled in 2016 that highlights instrumental imperfections — “damaged horns, flattened fiddles, splintered double bases, padless saxophones, leaky clarinets, and busted-up snares.” She’s used this sample pack on her past releases, but never to such wacky ends.
Kate NV first started putting out music of her own about a decade ago, and there was always a baseline playfulness to her music. One of her best and most popular early songs, “KATA,” kind of sounds like if Grimes was on uppers all the time instead of being a paranoid freak-ass. On 2020’s excellent Room For The Moon, Kate NV pulled from the knottier strains of synthesizer music, creating songs with an actual structure, ones that utilized her voice to convey the loneliness and isolation that she was feeling at the time while still holding onto the airiness of her earlier work.
WOW is a regression in the sense that Kate NV has returned to more formless compositions, but the lack of construction feels like the point. It’s reminiscent of arts and crafts, or something you’d bang out alone during recess, translating a sense of childlike wonder and aimless exploration into musical form. The building blocks in this case are the large array of sounds she’s collected over the years, some recorded herself and some from her trusty sample pack; she knocks them together and breaks them down with glee.
WOW is largely wordless, save for some chopped-up utterances and a poem contributed by producer Takahide “Foodman” Higuchi, which Kate NV sings as an appetizer to the album’s frenetic opener “oni (they).” It’s an album that transmits all that it needs to say in the sounds that it’s using. Amid transcendent whirrs of saxophone and blooping synthesizers, there are pops and splats and slaps, door creaks and toy squeaks and the chitter of birds in the morning. Kate NV acts like the kind of eccentric kid you might side-eye on the playground, but whose carefree attitude you find tantalizing. She sounds like she’s having a lot of fun just messing around, but she keeps hitting on ideas that are worthwhile: the way she gradually ramps up the BPM on “mi (we)” through a clatter of chimes and a zone-out New Age-y instrumental, “razmishlenie (thinking)”‘s chorus of babbling lips, the itching guitar that winds its way through “meow chat.”
What’s remarkable and refreshing is how little anxiety is coursing through these songs. It feels rare nowadays to have music that can be so abundantly exuberant. “My only concern about releasing it now is that the album is joyful but what I’m experiencing is not joyful at all,” Kate NV said in a recent interview — she recently moved out of her home country due to the conflict with Ukraine. “I was afraid that people would question how I could create this light-hearted and fun music right now, but life is very short and I just want it to be out there. Maybe it can help someone else to feel light, warm and happy again.” It’s a welcome reprieve to indulge in a little escapist fantasy, and WOW is the best kind of bright, gooey confection.
WOW is out 3/3 via RVNG Intl. Pre-order it here.